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The Bread Thread

Pei writes:

"Getting my bread to rise as much as I want it to is a continuing challenge. I appreciate that bread making is an art that's going to require (perhaps a lifetime) of practice, and that the perfect loaf may forever elude me."

I started baking our everyday sandwhich bread in 2002, and the first year I made some lovely brick-like door stops. With trial and error, my baking has improved tremendously, and I've found my way to a recipe that is indeed quite edible. (But not fool-proof, if you will pardon the pun.)

Knowing breadmaking is an art that will require a lifetime of practice helps me along when I'm staring at a flat, dense loaf that REFUSES to rise (as I was last night). I've gleaned information from plenty of books and bakers, but have found that nothing replaces hands-on time in the kitchen. I'm curious if there are other hounds out there committed to regular bread baking?

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  1. I used to bake bread regularly, and I agree with you that experience is what counts - the feel of the dough tells you if it's going to be right or not.

    But my husband is the real bread eater in the family, so I encouraged him to try baking. I gave him Joe Ortiz' Village Baker as a starting point. It took a few tries but he now regularly turns out dynamite ciabatta which we also use for the crust of our grilled pizza.

    I'm trying to get him to start on Steve Sullivan's walnut levain (from Baking with Julia) - absolutely wonderful bread. I bought a loaf from Acme when I was last in San Francisco and was amazed at the flavor.

    1. Welcome to primitive bread baking. I have had great success lately baking simple bread using a fork and large stainless mixing bowl. I use no electric mixer or bread machine.

      Make a sponge the night before. Add honey to 3/4 cup of warm water by plunging the tips of a fork's tines in the honey and stirring. Proof 1 tsp. of rapid-rise yeast in the water by letting it bloom for about 10 minutes. Pour the proofed yeast into a large mixing bowl that contains 3/4 cup of unbleached all-purpose flour and thoroughly mix with the fork. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and allow to ferment overnight.

      Next morning mix following dry ingredients in a separate bowl. Another cup and one-quarter of unbleached all-purpose flour, 2 teaspoons Kosher salt, 2 cups of bread flour, and a teaspoon of oregano or marjoram. Proof some more yeast just as was done the night before.

      When yeast has bloomed, add it to the sponge along with 2 Tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil. Stir the mixture with your fork. Start adding the dry ingredients using about a 1/2 cup at time and stir with fork. Continue until all flour is incorporated always stirring with fork. If dough becomes too stiff, use your hand to form dough until all is incorporated.

      Dough will be somewhat sticky. Spread flour on working surface before pouring dough onto it. Start kneading dough adding a little flour until the dough is firm and not sticky. That'll take 8 to 10 minutes. Wash bowl in which dough was mixed with plain water. Dry it with paper toweling. Add a little oil to bowl and cover the entire interior surface with the oil. Place the dough in bowl and turn it so that oil entirely covers the dough. Cover the bowl with the plastic wrap used the night before. Allow the dough to rise in a warm place until more than double in size, about 1 hour. We have 2 ovens now, so I heat one to 105 degrees, turn it off, and place bowl in oven.

      Spread more flour on working surface that has been cleaned after previous kneading. Pour risen dough out on working surface and gently form 2 loaves or a dozen rolls. Place the formed dough on Release aluminum foil which rests on a large baking sheet. Don't try to perfectly shape them...let them take their own form as they rise a 2nd time for another hour.

      Preheat oven to 425 degrees with a pizza baking stone in it if you have one. Place baking sheet on preheated stone and bake for about 25-30 minutes. Spray oven with water in a spray bottle 3 times within the first 10 minutes of baking.

      Take baked bread or rolls out of oven and allow to cool on raised wire racks. The bread should be crusty, but the interior bread should have a light texture with lots of spaces due to yeast releasing fermentation gas.

      The resulting baked product should be like the Italian bread called 'ciabatta' which means 'slipper' in Italian. I like to make rolls, about a dozen, because a given roll is just the right size for a sandwich. They also freeze well.

      Buona fortuna e buon appetito!

      2 Replies
      1. re: ChiliDude

        Sounds amazing! How much honey do you put into the sponge?

        1. re: Pei

          I use just enough honey to cover the bottom third of the fork tines allowing the excess to drip back into the jar. Honey is a monosaccharide and easier for the yeast to digest than is table sugar which is a disaccharide.

      2. I'm in the camp of "primitive baking" too. My only special equipment is a pizza stone to help even out the heat in my gas oven. I make quite a few batter breads (little/no kneading), including an adaptation of a foccacia in Nick Malgieri's How to Bake book. Refrigerator rolls are fun, too...after kneading, you allow the dough to rise overnight in the fridge, and just pinch off small amounts to make rolls, which rise very quickly after being out of the fridge. The dough will keep for several days in the fridge, and you can have hot dinner rolls without same-day work.

        My most notable recent failure: I tried to make a wild-yeast pain de levain, using a slurry of organic flour & spring water to capture some "local yeasts". Turns out this isn't such a good idea if you're downwind of post-Katrina New Orleans--I captured all sorts of nasty-smelling foul microorganisms & my starter went south in a matter of hours. Maybe I'll wait for the weather to cool off and try again.

        3 Replies
        1. re: Hungry Celeste

          Wow, sorry about that! I would definitely be leery of our wild strains, they might be a little wilder than anticipated right now. I had been considering starting some sour dough, but maybe I'll just hold off on that.

          I used to be a primitive baker, (I assume that just means hand-kneading?) until I discovered that my Kitchenaid does a better job of getting it to "windowpane" stage than I do. I'm currently stuck on a multigrain recipe I found on the web somewhere.

          1. re: Hungry Celeste

            When my best friend in Tuscon called to say her sourdough started died, I spent a day driving around Berkeley (Cheeseboard, Acme) and the San Francisco wharf area with a jar full of flour and water. Her mom picked up the jar on the way to Tuscon and Lynn's still using it 12 years later. Amazing pancakes!

            1. re: Alexandra Eisler

              Unfortunately yeast will quickly become taken over with local yeast. So what she has been baking with is Tucson wild yeast.

          2. I was pleased by the effect of high gluten flour on my efforts. And I got a twenty-five pound bag at Costco for about six fifty.

            1. I do bake some kind of yeast bread every weekend. I don't have time during the week to bake so I spend my evenings reading baking books to come up with a recipe for the weekend. For the past few Saturdays, I have been making kolaches using different recipes. I can't say that I've been taken with any of the recipes yet but I'm getting closer.

              1. I do! I bake challah for my family every couple of weeks (I freeze the extra loaves) and love to experiment with other kinds of yeast breads. My two favorite books right now are A Blessing of Bread: The Many Rich Traditions of Jewish Bread Baking Around the World, by Maggie Glezer and The Bread Baker's Apprentice by Peter Reinhart. I consider myself quite experienced with conventional yeast baking and like to make artisan-style loaves, but have not yet dipped my toe into the wild yeast waters.

                There's some good bread-baking discussion at http://thefreshloaf.com/.

                2 Replies
                1. re: doctor_mama

                  Have you ever tried the Cranberry Walnut Celebration Bread from The Bread Baker's Apprentice? I just make two round free form loaves instead of the braid and I absolutely love it. My cookbook automatically opens to that page now!

                2. I've been baking bread for over 20 years. My best suggestion is to add flour gradually without measuring. Early on I baked some golf ball rolls because I added exactly the amount of flour called for in the recipe, and it turned out to be too much. As you work with dough you will learn what the texture should be and how to tell when you've added "enough" flour -- I use a Kitchen Aid mixer and stop adding flour when the dough is still pretty sticky and soft, because I can always add more flour when I turn the dough out on the board.

                  I find Beth Hensperger's bread recipes to be very reliable. These days I'm mostly baking whole grain sandwich-type breads, and her books contain very good recipes for those.

                  Sarah C

                  1. bake all the time. been doing it for a long time - since college. Over the past 4 years, been doing sourdough almost exclusively.

                    good stuff, that sourdough...

                    1. Next up: rolls for Tuesday's smoked pork butt, using a modified challah recipe. I'm adding smoked chipotle powder to the dough and planning an overnight rise in the reefer.

                      We've finished the first "dwarf" loaf from earlier this week; great flavor (2 nights in the fridge-the first rise, and then the formed loaves), and a dense, tight grain which makes it easy to slice thinly. My chowpup calls it baby bread. (vbg)

                      3 Replies
                      1. re: Alexandra Eisler

                        My thing is whole wheat bread & variations. In recent years I've made significant progress, in part with Deborah Madison's ww sandwich loaf but branching out from there. I seem to get my best rise when I grind my own wheat; I do not know why that makes such a difference but that seems to be the factor. Doesn't even need the gluten flour which DM uses.

                        1. re: Babette

                          What equipment and supplies does one need to grind her own wheat?

                        2. re: Alexandra Eisler

                          I had a total and complete "D'oh" moment while making the challah rolls yesterday morning. I used the same yeast for my rolls that produced the dwarf loaves last week. ooops. I let the sponge rise overnight and didn't see much action, so I added an additional teaspoon of yeast (different brand) along with the remainder of the flour. Bingo. Nice rise into big, flufffy rolls. I split the rolls and we grilled them before serving them with the pulled pork.

                        3. I got the grain grinding attachment for the Kitchenaid. Sometimes I put the wheat through twice for a finer texture, or mix some of both textures. I have been buying organic wheat and other good products from Purcell Mountain Farms:


                          I'm interested in other sources but have no complaints about this one!

                          2 Replies
                          1. re: Babette

                            WOW! I thought I was hard core! I am VERY intrigued by this concept.

                            I found a less expensive wheat source (that is also a bit higher in protein) here:


                            My neighborhood grocery (Colusa Market in Kensington) carries Bob's, and will do special orders if I commit to the whole case. I'm definately going to look for an attachment now....

                            1. re: Alexandra Eisler

                              Thanks for the Bob's link. I have used their products before & they are good. I'm going to get some of their organic hard white wheatberries. Purcell's may have more organic options, but it's true they are pricy. Their dried fruits & legumes are very good, too. I try to order a lot at once to consolidate shipping, at least.

                              I ordered the attachment through Amazon.

                              I'd really like to hear about your results!